Manufacturers Continue to Improve the Basketball Goal

Paul Steinbach Headshot

It all began, the time-honored story goes, with a peach basket plucked from a janitor's closet. Given two weeks to develop an indoor activity to occupy students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., during brutal New England winters, Canadian-born physical-education instructor James Naismith hung the basket on the railing of a running track, which happened to be suspended 10 feet above the gymnasium floor. With the addition of a soccer ball, a second basket and a baker's dozen playing rules, basketball was born in December 1891.

It was a slow game, to say the least, with each goal requiring retrieval of the ball by individuals ascending ladders or poking broomsticks through the basket bottom from below. Metal rims had emerged by 1893, but open-bottom nets weren't in vogue for another 11 years. It's little wonder, then, that the first college basketball game, played January 18, 1896, was a low-scoring affair, with the University of Chicago outlasting Iowa, 15-12.

Naismith, who died in 1939 having sought or received little fame or fortune from his invention, could not have imagined that the 18 students in Springfield who served as his inspiration more than a century ago would give way to today's estimated 300 million basketball participants worldwide. Nor could he have predicted the evolution of the game's namesake piece of equipment, the basket, and its increasingly sophisticated support structures and accessories. In fact, many of the biggest technological strides in basketball stanchion design and function have taken place only within the past 30 years -- all with the goal of making the game simpler to stage, safer and fairer to play, easier to officiate or just more fun to watch.

Basketball may have been invented by a modest man in both demeanor and physical stature (Naismith stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall), but it took a hulking showman who called himself "Chocolate Thunder" to precipitate perhaps the game's most sweeping equipment overhaul. Once the Philadelphia 76ers' 6-11, 250-pound center Darryl Dawkins shattered two backboards in 22 days during the 1979-80 NBA season, it quickly became clear amid a shower of glass shards and a substantial game delay that something in stanchion design had to give -- namely, the rim.

The breakaway rim, regarded by many manufacturers as one of the most consequential developments in basketball equipment evolution, actually traces its roots to the Farmers Elevator Co. in Lowder, Ill. In July 1976, Farmers employee Arthur Ehrat patented the "deformation-preventing swingable mount for basketball goals," designed to prevent bending of the rim. "The breakaway rim changed the game," says one modern-day manufacturer. "It allowed dunking to be taken to the next level."

Ehrat's break-but-don't-bend spirit carries on in today's rims, which also succeed in helping prevent broken backboards and injuries to players' hands. Several variations on the breakaway theme have been introduced in recent years. There are economical springloaded rims that flex downward based on different amounts of applied force; positive-lock rims that break away only when a specific weight threshold is breeched, before snapping back into locked position when released; and rims that break away in multiple directions within a 180-degree arc, regardless of where the force is coming from. The latter development received NCAA rulebook approval this season.

The standard for breakaway rims has long been a static load of 230 pounds on the tip of the rim (the point farthest from the backboard), but rims alone can only do so much. Equally important in preventing backboard breakage is the direct-mount support system. In the past, glass backboards were attached to their support structures only at the 4-by-6-foot rectangle's four corners, with the rim bolted directly to the glass. With direct-mount systems, four bolts pass from the rim hardware through the glass backboard (or through an area cut out from the glass) and into a central horizontal beam connecting the backboard to the stanchion's vertical superstructure, relieving the glass of virtually all stress applied to the rim.

Manufacturers have introduced various configurations of additional support struts connecting the backboard to the stanchion to enhance its overall stability. (An NCAA rule introduced this season requires all backboard movement resulting from a dunk or similar violent play to cease within four seconds.) Stronger tempered glass, too, has helped make today's backboards virtually unbreakable. One company offers a patented retention system applied to new or existing glass backboards to prevent an explosion of shards in the event the glass shatters, much like a car's windshield is designed to sustain impact.

But as was proven last year, even the best equipment is fallible over time and under extreme circumstances. During a January 7, 2004, game at Arkansas State University, which had purchased stanchions (later repainted and repadded) that had appeared in the 1994 NCAA Final Four, Western Kentucky's Nigel Dixon, a 6-11, 320-pound center, threw down a dunk with enough torque to shatter the backboard, delay the game 30 minutes and ultimately grab a sliver of the national spotlight. "After this happened and it hit Sports Illustrated, I had six phone calls from backboard and rim reps trying to sell me their latest and greatest product," recalls David Carmack, operations manager at the ASU Convocation Center.

At that point, the extent of ASU's equipment damage wasn't even fully understood. It took another visiting team to recognize that the backboard was no longer parallel to the baseline and that the rim was slightly cocked to one side. Dixon's dunk had sheered a bearing within the floor-mounted stanchion's support mechanism, skewing the entire goal. Diagnosis and repair required a visit by a qualified service professional.

Such solitary displays of brute force are rare, but stanchion hardware can nonetheless be compromised -- baskets may loosen or become misaligned -- even under normal use. It's a situation that has led some coaches to question the consistency of equipment performance from one competition venue to another and, more important, from one basket to the other within the same venue.

With support from the National Basketball Coaches Association, one basketball equipment manufacturer has developed a tool to measure both the height of rims and their rebound elasticity. While the 10-foot basket height has remained unchanged since the days of Naismith, Ed Schroeder, director of product design and quality at Porter Athletic Equipment Co., has recently discovered startling deviations from that rule.

Schroeder recalls one Big Ten Conference venue in particular: "On one end of the court, the goal frame and the rim were too loose. That goal, believe it or not, was an inch and three-eighths too low. At the opposite end of the court, the rim was too tight. That rim was five-eighths of an inch too high. Can you imagine playing ball there and switching ends at halftime?"

Prior to the start of the 2004-05 season, the NCAA for the first time mandated rim testing in all Division I competition venues. Under parameters endorsed by both the NCAA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which governs Olympic competition, "the rebound elasticity of any basket ring support system shall be within a 35 percent to 50 percent energy-absorption range of total impact energy, and within a 5 percent differential between baskets on the same court."

Determining whether a facility met these criteria involved clamping a telescoping rod to the front of each rim and dropping a cylindrical weight (equal to the weight of a basketball) from a designated height on the rod to a springloaded stopping point. A handheld sensor then computed the rim's rebound response from each of three separate drops, and an average score was calculated and logged.

Schools had until Oct. 15 to complete the initial test, with a second test due between March 1 and the start of postseason play. The NCAA did not release the number of schools that failed the preseason test. However, when piloting the so-called Fair-Courtr device in the late 1990s, Schroeder found the competition rims at 28 of 30 schools representing the Southeastern, Missouri Valley and Mountain West conferences to be noncompliant by today's standards.

Facilities that failed tests this past off-season could either adjust their existing rims (some rims now on the market allow on-site adjustments using an Allen wrench), replace their rims with adjustable models or replace the entire stanchion. In some cases, a timeworn support structure is all it takes to sabotage an otherwise perfectly functional rim. Even in such cases, an adjustable rim can be calibrated to compensate for sloppiness elsewhere in the unit.

While technical progress is being made in controlling the way the ball bounces for both teams from a hardware standpoint, another recent -- and far more visible -- development in basketball stanchion design has targeted human error.

Like many equipment developments, the LED clock-expiration indicator first appeared on NBA courts before trickling down to the collegiate level two seasons ago. The system, which in a vast majority of Division I venues has already replaced the single-bulb red lights positioned behind the backboard, consists of bars of bright red light positioned just inside the backboard's edges (no more than 6 inches from the top and bottom and 5 inches from the sides). When triggered, the lights provide a brilliantly framed background against which game officials can better determine (in real time and via a courtside replay monitor) if a player's shot left his or her hand before time on the game or shot clock expired.

Fans, too, are better equipped to "make the call" from their seats, thanks to stanchion-mounted shot and game clocks, which are required by rule to display time in tenths of a second. In addition, an increasing number of venues now boast stanchion-mounted clocks with three or four sides for easier fan viewing.

According to NCAA basketball rules liaison Heather Perry, the LED technology is not only more visible, it actually reacts more quickly to the clock. Thus, NCAA rules language instituted two years ago still allows for a solitary red light but acknowledges that LED lights are "superior" and should take precedence if both types of lights are present. "It has been a good change," says Bill Topp, editor of Referee magazine, the official publication of the National Association of Sports Officials. "We need more tools to help us get those last-second plays right."

While the integrity of game operations has gotten due attention lately, basketball equipment manufacturers and rules makers have long been dedicated to player safety, and basketball stanchion evolution reflects that.

At roughly the time that breakaway rims began to accommodate the physical demands imposed by a new generation of bigger athletes, backboards got considerably smaller. The top edge of a backboard is still required by rule to stand 13 feet off the floor, but the recommended height of the actual backboard surface has been reduced by 6 inches along the bottom edge, from a total height of 48 inches to 42 inches, making it less likely for players to bang into the backboard with their elbows, forearms or heads. Those who still manage to make contact are protected by padding that's at least 1 inch thick and fixed along the entire bottom edge and 15 inches up both sides, per NCAA rules.

Meanwhile, run-out room, the space between the base of a floor-mounted support structure and the plane of the backboard, is increasing. Currently, NCAA rules require 8 feet of clearance measured not only at floor level, but a full 7 feet up the face of the vertical support structure. However, for all its championship events, FIBA is now using systems that employ a longer horizontal support beam that allows for 10 feet, 8 inches of clearance. "These goals are safer," claims the manufacturer of one such system. "The extra space behind the backboard prevents a streaking player from jumping up to dunk and having his momentum carry him into the base before his feet hit the ground."

Of course, this point is moot on courts that employ ceiling-mounted goal systems. Popular at the high school level for their turnkey transition of a space from one sport to another, ceiling-mounted units are also used in a handful of major college facilities -- most notably Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium. That said, portable floor-mounted units have become less cumbersome for facility operators with the introduction of an internal spring mechanism that facilitates the raising of the goal for competition and the lowering of it for transport and storage. According to a manufacturer of such a system, this allows setup to be handled by one person, while also taking electricity and the risk of hydraulic fluid leaks out of the equation.

Another recent safety-related development involves rims with tube-tie net attachment systems, which secure the net to the rim with a second, smaller-diameter ring welded to the underside of the rim itself. Added to NCAA rules language in time for the 2003-04 season, this type of system eliminates the need for traditional welded wire "ram's horn" hooks, which presented players with a hand laceration hazard.

So far, cutting-edge innovation has touched mainly the highest levels of basketball competition -- with the NBA, FIBA and the NCAA's Division I the first to respond. NCAA rules language may encourage Division II and Division III schools to upgrade their equipment, but doesn't always require them to do so. High schools, meanwhile, are too often limited by their own budget constraints.

But basketball is still evolving. The third of Naismith's original 13 rules of basketball -- that a player cannot run with the ball, but rather must throw it from the spot on which he catches it -- doesn't exactly conjure up images of today's fast-breaking, run-and-gun style of play. What would the creator have made of the seemingly endless parade of slams dished out nightly on "SportsCenter"?

As the pace of the game has changed, so has the pace of equipment innovation, and there's no telling where the trickle-down of technology will bottom out. In some ways, manufacturer ingenuity is driving modern rules interpretations, not the other way around. As equipment makers continue to chase the state of the art in basketball stanchion design, many stand to benefit -- players, officials, facility operators and fans.

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